It’s back-to-school time. Hoorah! Or perhaps not . . . It’s a tough few days. As one of my friends says, it’s like playing Time Tetris. Parents are asked to think about all kinds of things: What’s the transportation plan — bus, carpool, walk? What’s the after-school plan? Where will the kids be when, and with which adults? Have you given all relevant medical and allergen information to the school nurse? How are you handling lunches — make at home in the morning rush or buy at school? Have you signed all the forms about technology use and anti-bullying?
At the risk of piling on, here’s one more question parents should think about: Will your child have civics this year?
Civics refers to instruction that integrates many subjects — social studies, history, government, language arts and media literacy — to help young people grow into self-aware, well-informed, equitable and effective democratic citizens. Sometimes the classes show up under the label “civics”; sometimes it’s “U.S. government” or “problems of democracy.”
Over the past few decades, our nation has undergone a significant decline in the provision of civics education. We downshifted from delivering three courses in civics to most high school students in the mid-20th century to now delivering one single-semester course to approximately 85 percent of students, as Michael Rebell points out in his recent book “Flunking Democracy.” He also reports that by four years after the implementation of No Child Left Behind, a meaningful percentage of school districts had reduced social-studies instruction to devote more time to English and math (33 percent in a nationally representative sample of 299 districts). Statewide skills tests that focus on math and English language arts, important as those subjects are, give schools no incentive to invest in civics instruction.
The shift has been most significant for low-income students in low-resourced schools. As a 2017 report from the Education Commission of the States puts it, “Urban schools with low-income, diverse students provide fewer and lower-quality civic opportunities and affluent white students are twice as likely as those of average socioeconomic status to study the legislative process or participate in service activities and 150 percent more likely to do in-class debates.”
The results of our disinvestment in civics education appear stark. Only about 30 percent of U.S. millennials consider it “essential” to live in a democracy, while 72 percent of Americans born before World War II do, according to political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in “The Democratic Disconnect.”
Indeed, scholars such as Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Peter Levine at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life argue that the relative neglect of civics education in the past half-century is a major root cause of much civic and political dysfunction.
No democracy can survive if its citizens do not believe that democracy is worth having. The long-term future of our system of government depends not only on restoring a supermajority of citizens who demand democracy but also on ensuring that that percentage exists across the generations.
Nor is it enough for people simply to believe democracy is essential if they don’t know how to build, operate, maintain, fix and adapt democracies. This means we also need to build a supermajority of citizens who have confidence in their knowledge of how to use their voices, skills of democratic coordination and shared political institutions. That’s what our children could learn through classes on U.S. government, civics, and the problems and promise of democracy.
We won’t be able to achieve these goals unless we rebuild civics education in our primary and secondary schools. Nearly every state’s constitution guarantees a right to education. As Rebell demonstrates, the record of debates around state constitutions shows that the first and most important purpose for public education was to support civics education. Building a workforce was also important, but the overarching, overriding concern was preparing citizens to exercise their rights and responsibilities.
Some states have recognized the need to rebuild civics education. In 2010, Florida passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act , which has dramatically ramped up civics education in that state. More recently, Massachusetts, Illinois and Arizona have passed important legislation or developed more demanding state department of education standards around civics. Other states are working on similar policy efforts.
But the simple fact is that we will not be able to rebuild civics education unless parents ask for it just as they ask schools to prepare their kids for jobs.
Yes, graduates need jobs. Yes, schools should support that. But democracies also need citizens and effective and equitable civic participants. Schools should support that, too.
Hey, parents, can you take this question to your children’s schools this year: Got civics?